Then the kingdom of heaven, the coming of the Son of Man, will be like this…
So begins our parable for this morning about five foolish bridesmaids and five wise bridesmaids. The bridegroom is late; well, not exactly late—just not yet arrived. He’s been expected—but he’s taking his time in getting to the bride’s home. We aren’t told why. When I do marriage services, I don’t want to have to worry about the groom not showing up for the ceremony. So I tell the groom to be at the church a whole hour early and I purposely shut him inside a separate room, like our library. It tends to relieve the bride’s parents of some measure of worry. Most grooms actually take this temporary imprisonment rather well. They have time to think. They are spared being fussed over by parents and future in-laws, and spared having to deal with any other wedding worries, like where the rings are or whether their bride has snagged her dress or broken a nail. They just hang out in the library or the parlor with their finery and their boutonnière on and they wait. Sometimes they ask questions that they wouldn’t normally ask anyone, much less a pastor, but mostly they are just quiet. It’s interesting that the grooms also wonder if their bride will actually show up to take those steps down the aisle. They want reassurance, even if they don’t know how to ask for it.
Now, it’s a good sign when the groom doesn’t mind being confined at this early stage, or receiving guidance on what to do or say. The groom starts to anticipate the reality of sharing one’s life with someone else and realizes that it’s entirely okay to ask last minute questions or to admit to being nervous. Later, when the wedding is just about to begin, the groom and I will enter the sanctuary and wait for the bride to make her entrance. I don’t know if the groom ever consciously considers this, but I imagine the walk to the sanctuary is a much longer because of those preliminary 45 minutes that he spends in our library or parlor. You can see it in the groom’s eyes. He becomes more focused and determined. He reconsiders, or considers for the first time, the words that he will be expected to say. And with each step, a new identity is forged. Our sanctuary becomes a kind of threshold, and that’s a good thing.
During Jesus’ time, we have something of the reverse situation. Instead of waiting for the bride to take her walk down the aisle, first century weddings didn’t begin until the groom arrived at the bride’s home. The groom and his friends would come to the bride’s home and then escort the bride and her maids to the groom’s father’s house. After the groom arrived back home with his bride and her attendants, the wedding festivities could commence. Weddings didn’t start on time back then either. Instead, one waited for the groom to arrive—which could be at any time—during the day or at night.
So there you are, waiting for your girlfriend’s fiancé to show up, because you’ve been told that this just might be the day, and you’re carrying on with your sisters, cousins, and friends. You brought your lamp with you because someone told you that you might need it – that is, if the groom came at night—this was, of course, before Edison and electric streetlights. But of course, having your lamp ready is like packing an umbrella when the weather forecast is only slightly cloudy; you don’t actually believe that you’ll ever need it. Besides everyone else has brought a lamp, haven’t they? But now it’s getting later and later, and darker and darker, and you are yawning and getting very sleepy. So you lie down for a brief nap…but just about the time when you are dreaming of your own happy marriage, the groom shows up, and you awaken to find that your wick is smoking and your lamp has gone dim or dark.
“Give me some oil, for my lamp is going out,” you cry and you become increasingly distraught when you realize that your friend is having the same problem with her lamp. So you ask one of the others and, wouldn’t you know, those others are not at all in the mood for sharing—they tell you that if you want more oil, you’ll have to run down to the corner and buy some more. But, of course, it’s night-time, and when you get to the dealers, you have to wake up the clerk who is not happy and he was just taking his good ‘ol time, and every time you tried to hurry him, he just moved more slowly. So by the time you got back to your girlfriend’s house, your friends were long gone and the groom and bride were already on their way. You try to overtake the wedding party, but when you reach the designated house, the door is shut and no one can possibly hear you because everyone is inside, the music is blaring, people are feasting, drinking, and dancing. “Lord, Lord,” you cry, “Open to us!” But the Lord of the house shouts through the door, “Do I know you?”
And you think, “if only I had done things differently.”
Now this is one of those parables that folks want to turn into an allegory: where each character or thing represents something else. On Stewardship Sunday, I am tempted to tell you that the needed oil represents your faith, or your resources, your resourcefulness, your planning, or your time spent with God. But I simply don’t know. But I suspect that you will know. I also suspect that we, who have been and still are on the threshold of new leadership in this country—that we, perhaps, are still waiting for the bridegroom to show up and solve all of our problems or at least get the party started for the festivities to commence. Yet, we, like many others, may be disappointed to find out that – no matter who we voted for—are going to have to tend the light if there is any to be had on the other side of this election in our country and in our world. If we want a healthy, strong democracy, it is we who will have to tend the light. If we want a healthy, strong and vibrant faith community, it is we who will have to tend the light and provide the warmth, no matter whether the heat is currently functioning or not in the sanctuary.
If we want to grow our church in these pandemic times, it is we who will need to spread the light by sending the link to our Zoom service, or by showing up in virtual and personal ways; it is we who will need to encourage each other that this pandemic is not the end of us, the end of church as we know it, or the end of our creativity, mission, and ministry to Montgomery County and beyond.
It is both a challenge and an opportunity to realize that you can easily share the good news of this community with your friends, family, and neighbors now, wherever they are. For whom does this church exist? Every one of us might want to consider that question in light of all that we have been through, still are going through, and also in light of those who might need help tending the little light they have. Are we the dealers of oil and light who are slowly awaking to a new world in which people don’t “come” to us the same way? Are we the bridesmaids who didn’t realize just how much light and hope would be needed for these dark days? Are we the bridegroom who is slowly, too slowly, making our way into a future in which mutual commitment will shape our world, hopes, and dreams? Are we the bridesmaids that are feeling a bit reluctant to share because we have supported so many so often and now we really do need some of that support ourselves?
I don’t know.
I suspect that after spending some time waiting, you know. You’re waiting—like many of us—for things to turn around. For a vaccine, for an election to settle, darn it, for fairness to reign, for a return to some kind of civic civility and for the opportunity to hug your friends and family without Covid lurking over your shoulder.
What is the light that we need to tend? What is the light that we want to tend to make sure that it does not and cannot flicker and die? You’ll know what the oil and light are when you spend time praying or re-discovering your faith in a book study or small group. You’ll know when you zoom in on coffee hour and see how our families and their loved ones are faring. You’ll know when you Zoom into worship and find- that lo! even if the world is still rather messy and hurting right now, there is still a church to attend. I suspect also that you will discover, like those foolish bridesmaids, that there is a world of difference between the oil that we refuse to share, and the oil that we can not resist sharing. And what you do not yet know, the Holy Spirit will patiently teach you.
Now, perhaps the foolish bridesmaids had been hoarding their oil, or had refused to share on other occasions. In the dark of night, they are caught short. Or maybe the wise bridesmaids really were stingy and selfish, or more competitive than cooperative. And maybe the Lord of the house could not recognize the faces and hearts of the guests banging on his door because they were trying to depend on their own manufactured and purchased light, and not the example of his sacrifice. We don’t know.
But we do know that the difference between the foolish and wise in this parable is not as strong as our friend, Matthew, the gospel writer makes it out to be. We have all been wise and foolish—and sometimes in the very same day. One of the best explanations of this disturbing parable about the coming of the Son of Man is that those foolish bridesmaids did not really live in the expectation that their Lord would come. When we live out of the expectation that our Lord could show up in the ministry of this church, this sometimes crazy and deeply loved people, then we practice our faith differently. If we expect that our Lord can show up in a Zoom meeting, in the moments of worship, or in the kitchen when we are preparing a meal for our loved ones, or dropping off mittens for those in need…If we expect that our Lord can show up when we are supporting someone else’s children or revisiting our own Christian formation, privilege or biases, or navigating our budgets, then we tend to give differently. When we believe that God can show up in the relationships that we have with each other and those who come to our doors, we become different. The gift of our participation and resources is less about us, and more about the joy that we experience in simply being in the presence of the Lord that we love, serve, and wait upon.
I also suspect that you know very well, that there are a few things in this life that you simply can not borrow from others, because they require personal relationship, investment, and sacrifice. College students can cram before an exam, but there is no substitute for studying and actually learning the material. Happily married couples can share their personal secrets to a strong marriage. Still, you can’t use their personal secrets without your loving behavior and your application of that wisdom. Parents can’t make up for lost time with their kids by buying their children’s desires. One generation can pass the tradition to the next generation but there is no substitute for the next generation making that tradition their very own. It is the same with democracy. Your participation counts. Your light counts.
When his congregation moved into a new church building, the preacher, Fred Craddock, shared these words:
When we get up on the hill and into the new church building, we are going to have new chairs. They are blue and cushioned, and they are bigger than these we are sitting in now. They are nice, but they are going to be just chairs. The symbolism of a chair is this: you are sitting there in the presence of God. It is an individual thing. If there is going to be any singing, you are going to have to sing. If there is going to be any offering, you are going to have to give it. If there is going to be any Communion, you are going to have to participate in it. If there is going to be any worship, you are going to have to do it. You are before God, in God’s presence at the altar. God is here, and there you are in your chair. But the other thing about these chairs is that they are called “pew chairs.” They interlock, and you put several of them together to make a pew. Do you know what the pew is? The pew is a truly Christian piece of furniture because it is where a lot of people are together. You are not by yourself in your chair. You are with other people. Somebody is going to pass the tray for you to give your offering. Somebody is going to hand you the bread and say, “The body of Christ, given for you.” Somebody is going to hand you the cup and say, “The blood of Christ, shed for you.” Somebody is going to be your minister and your friend and your fellow worker. You are never alone. The grand resource of the church is each other. When you are absent, we miss you.”
Even though we meet virtually in the comfort of our homes, let’s not miss his point. Let us not miss the bridegroom because we expected less of ourselves. Let us not presume upon the oil of others or forget the light that is to be shared. Let’s show up and figure out how to tend and share the light together so that these difficult days become a bit easier. And let’s not miss the festivities because we expected less of Christ. Let’s refill our lamps, together, and let God judge between the foolish and the wise.